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Kat[h]mandu: Dirty Air and Pure Charm

Kathmandu, pronounced somewhere between kat-mandu and kath-mandu, is the capital of Nepal.  With more than 2.5 million inhabitants, Kathmandu stretches as far as the eye can see and basically spills over into all three of the other district areas in the valley.  From the air, its low-lying, earth-toned buildings (none over 6 or 7 stories tall) look like thousands of teeny gopher holes popping out of the ground.  From the ground, its streets resemble those of highway 101 in Los Angeles, at rush hour.  Minus the highway.  Her pot-hole riddled streets are a mess.  A constant entourage of motorcycles, bicycles, cars, buses, utility trucks, rik-shaws, and the occasional stray bovine, create traffic jams galore and only the most skilled cab drivers can navigate through her hidden back alleys and avoid the worst of it.  (As opposed to the ones who drive you an hour in the wrong direction, causing what should have been your 30 minute ride to turn into 3 hours – which would have been a great city-seeing detour were it not for the fact that an hour in a car at 5pm in Kathmandu means traveling only a matter of kilometers – and then demand MORE money for their mistake.  True Story.)

Now combine the combustion engines of the bustling streets with wood burning being the primary heat source for all 5 some odd million people in the Kathmandu Valley and what you get folks, is fairly extreme pollution – i.e. dirty air.  Plateauing in the morning hours when it’s colder, the pollution is a force to be reckoned with in this charming valley.  And my perspective is urban China, which tells you that what I speak is legit.  I had read about Kathmandu’s pollution many times over before we got there but pretty much dismissed it because I know pollution.  Despite, even from my tainted/experienced perspective, it was bad.  So bad, indeed, that the first morning we were there, we invested in a couple of ninja masks for the kids to help guard their already battle scarred lungs against large particulates (though, in truth, it’s the small particulates that are of the most concern, as they penetrate deeper into the lungs).

Despite these things, when you look past the mayhem and the hazy skies, the culture and the people more than make up for it.  I’ve never met a Nepali I didn’t like.  From my first encounter in a pub in London to our 15 day trip to the motherland, they really are incredible people.  Everywhere you go in Nepal, you read signs that say, Come as a Guest, Leave as a Friend, and it’s a legit statement.  The only other places I’ve traveled that have rivaled their kindness, are Indonesia and Malaysia.  The only way I can describe it is it’s as though you can feel their hearts.  Kindness seems to just ooze out, beautifully and naturally.  The sense of community between Nepalese people is incredible (as it can be in other cultures as well, notwithstanding my own), but what is even more amazing is that they share this community with those who travel to their country.

The last Nepali insight we were given before deciding to travel to Nepal was from an American-Kiwi who had only negative things to say about the people and culture.  He even went as far as to say that he wouldn’t recommend traveling there to anybody because of the commodi-fication of tourists.  This crushed me a bit, as Nepal had long been high up on my life-list.  But boy am I glad that we didn’t heed his warning.  Now, I will say that if your experience of Nepal was in the tourist hub of Thamel in Kathmandu (where he likely would have stayed for at least part of his trip), your perspective might be a tad jaded.  This was one of the only places in Nepal where we experienced hawkers and did feel like a dollar sign; but compared to other countries in which I’ve traveled, it really wasn’t all that assaulting.    

The Kathmandu Valley has a denser proportion of UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other area its size – in the world.  Seven in total, five are found within the limits of Kathmandu proper.  By chance, our first night was spent just adjacent to one of my favorites and coincidentally also one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu, Boudhanath Stupa.  A place of meditation for Buddhists and covered in Tibetan prayer flags, this stupa is one of the largest in the world.  At most hours of the day, but mainly at dusk, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people can be found circling its perimeter spinning prayer wheels as they pass by.  During daylight, dozens of people can be seen doing repetitive sun salutations on its steps.  Declared a World Heritage Site in 1979, Boudhanath Stupa has developed as a hub of Kathmandu tourism, as evidenced by the plethora of shops and restaurants scattered about its periphery – which all add to the charm of this ancient site.  More than that, the area has evolved as a center point of Tibetan Buddhism in Kathmandu, with over 50 monasteries established nearby.

The calm of the stupa is reinforced by its protection from the bustling city streets found just outside the narrow alley ways that lead to its interior and further juxtaposed by the commercial zoning around it.  Which, for a non-practicing Buddhist like myself, combine together to create a magical environment.  I mean, I could both meditate and buy gorgeous Nepali knitwear in the same place – win-win if you ask me.

After spending both an evening and a morning at Boudhanath Stupa, I didn’t imagine that any of the other stupas in Kathmandu could compete and probably would have been content ending my tour right there.  Drawn by its resident monkey population though (and motivated by animal loving children), I knew that we couldn’t pass up a visit to Swayambhunath, or Monkey Temple, found just west of the city and erected sometime in the 5th century.  High up on a hill, Swayambhunath is awash in character and history.  Second only to Boudhanath in Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, this site is considered by some to be the most important of all Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Kathmandu Valley, but is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus.  Swayambhunath is made up of a large stupa and a number of temples and shrines (and more recently a Buddhist monastery) – all perched on a hillside with sweeping views of the Kathmandu Valley.  Throw in vendors selling beautifully crafted Nepalese made goods, the sounds of sacred chants in the distance, and birds circling high up in the air and Swayambhunath runs a close second to Boudhanath.

And of course, you can’t forget the sacred monkey population that roam within its borders.  Clearly comfortable with humans, the macaque monkeys meander freely through the pathways and jovially swing from the branches high above.  There was one vendor selling some sort of food to feed the monkeys, but contrasted to a place like the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, where the monkeys have come to rely on the constant flow of bananas being fed to them by tourists, the monkeys at Swayambhunath seemed more independent and less interested in the humans exploring their home.

Now, read any guide book about Kathmandu and it will tell you that a visit isn’t complete without experiencing its Durbar Square.  One of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley and all UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other two found in Bhaktapur and Patan), Kathmandu’s Durbar Square dates back as far as the 3rd century.  Technically defined as the plaza in front of the ancient royal palace, it is also surrounded by stunning examples of Newari architecture in its adjacent courtyards and temples.  We had visited Bhaktapur Durbur Square the day before, so our expectations were quite high and albeit a bit let-down by what we found.  What it may have lacked in the charm of Bhaktapur, it surely made up for in dynamic chaos.  Surrounded by produce vendors and constantly awash in the sound of honking taxi horns, Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was bustling.  Also aided by the fact that we had arrived via a death defying rik-shaw ride through the city, dodging in and out of cars wasn’t how we wanted to spend our evening, so we ended up on roof terrace drinking beers and taking it in from above.  Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to brave the crowded streets again, the sun had gone down, so the rest of our tour of Durbur Square and its surrounding buildings was quick and in the dark.  As was our walk home – we definitely weren’t going to go rik-shaw riding through the streets of Kathmandu without the sun to guide us.

Mentioned above, Thamel is Kathmandu’s backpacker hub and is thus chalk full of good restaurants and shops.  In my opinion, it’s worth spending an evening/night there as a convenient jumping off point for other destinations (as there are many buses leaving nearby) and to get your fill of Nepali handicrafts, but that’s about it.  Nepal is too beautiful a country with too genuine a population to confine yourself to its most chaotic, least personable locale.

As you see, despite the dirty air, Kathmandu is full of pure charm and it is just a taste of what the rest of Nepal looks and feels like.  Fortunately, no matter how you get in or out of the country, Kathmandu will most likely be on your path at some point – when you do see her, please pick up some extra Nepalese hand warmers for me (in no less than two uses, mine have been lost).





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